Thursday, April 28, 2011

Rabbi Akiva's Students and the Omer


It is customarily to refrain from listening to music during the Omer period. At least not until Lag Ba'Omer (the 33. day of the Omer). Not only music is avoided but also cutting ones hair and weddings.

Lag Ba'Omer was the day when Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai passed away. He was a student of the famous Tanna Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef.

We are always told that the time of the Omer period is a time of mourning and that's why we have to avoid listening to music or celebrating weddings. The Talmud Tractate Yevamot 62b teaches that during this time, 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died in a plague. Our Mefarshim refer to the death of the students as a G - dly punishment because the students spoke Lashon HaRah (idle talk) about each other. Each of them wanted to be the best and most respected person and didn't see the other ones anymore.

Historians, however, make a completely different statement. The students didn't die in a plague but died during the war with the Romans. This version seems to be more realistic and I totally agree with it. Rabbi Akiva falsely saw the Meshiach in Bar Kochba and supported him in the war against the Romans. He even let his students fight for Bar Kochba and many of them fell.

There is no doubt that the time of the Omer is a mourning period but it could be that many people stress the wrong reason.


  1. Yevamos 62b states clearly that Rabbi Akiva’s disciples died from a disease. But Zionist authors such as Y. L. Maimon invented, for theological reasons, the story that they died fighting in the revolt against Rome led by Ben Koziva. Even before the era of Zionism, heretical Jewish historians such as Graetz and Frankel depicted Rabbi Akiva as traveling around, arousing the Jews to fight for their independence. Rabbi Yitzchok Isaac Halevi showed that these claims have no historical basis, in Chazal or elsewhere (Doros Harishonim v. 4 chapter 39-41). The Talmud Yerushalmi (Taanis 24a) says only that Rabbi Akiva thought that Ben Koziva was Moshiach.

    In fact, there is a dispute between the Talmud Bavli and the Talmud Yerushalmi about the attitude of Chazal toward Ben Koziva. The Bavli (Sanhedrin 93b) says that Moshiach must be able to judge cases based on his sense of smell. When Ben Koziva claimed to be Moshiach, the Sages tested him to see if he had this miraculous ability. When they saw that he did not, they killed him. The Yerushalmi, on the other hand, says that Rabbi Akiva believed in Ben Koziva, and the Rambam says (Melachim 11:3) that not only Rabbi Akiva but all the Sages of his generation as well believed in him. The Rambam proves from this story that Moshiach will not have to perform any miracles to establish his identity as Moshiach. The Raavad, quoting the Bavli mentioned above, disagrees.

    The Midrash Rabbah on Shir Hashirim 2:7 says that there were four times in history when the Jewish people “forced the end and stumbled”; one of them is the revolt of Ben Koziva. This Midrash, which holds that the revolt was forbidden, must agree with the Talmud Bavli that Chazal did not support Ben Koziva. But according to the Yerushalmi, which says that Rabbi Akiva did support him, it must be that there was no transgression of the oath against forcing the end. Why not?

  2. The answer is simple: the oath prohibits forcing the end, that is, trying to bring the end of the exile on our own, without waiting for Moshiach. According to the Bavli, since Chazal had conclusively proven that Ben Koziva was not Moshiach, any effort to throw off the Roman yoke would be considered forcing the end. But the Yerushalmi holds that Moshiach need not perform any miracles, as the Rambam says. He need only be someone who “learns Torah and does mitzvos and forces the entire Jewish people to follow the Torah” (Rambam Melachim 11:4). Ben Koziva evidently met these criteria, so Chazal rightly assumed that he was Moshiach, and there was no prohibition on following him into battle. However, to follow a false moshiach who does not succeed in getting everyone to keep the Torah, and certainly to follow someone who does not even claim to be moshiach, is a transgression of the oaths according to all opinions.

    The Satmar Rav notes (Vayoel Moshe Chapters 48 and 80) that by making teshuva of the entire Jewish people the criterion for Moshiach, the Rambam is not leaving open the door for impostors. On the contrary, to make everything dependent on miracles and wonders would be dangerous, because sometimes a false prophet is given the ability to fool people with miracles (Devarim 13:3). But to make all Jews do teshuva is such a monumental task that, in the normal way of the world, no one can do it. If someone does succeed, it is a clear sign that Hashem has sent him to be Moshiach.

    Rabbi Avrohom Loewenstam in his work Tzeror Hachaim (published in 1820) explains Rabbi Akiva’s position differently. How, he asks, could the great Rabbi Akiva have sanctioned this sin, this transgression of the oath? The answer is, he says, that the city of Beitar, in which Ben Koziva reigned for two and a half years, had never been conquered by Rome at all. Beitar was a living remnant of the Jewish kingdom that had existed before the destruction of the Temple. Evidence to this can be found in the words of the Midrash Eichah (2:2): “Fifty-two years Beitar lasted after the destruction of the Temple. And why was it destroyed? Because they lit candles to celebrate the destruction of the Temple.” The Midrash goes on to explain that they rejoiced that Jerusalem was gone, and now Beitar would be the commercial center of the Land. Thus, Beitar had been a Jewish center all along, and Ben Koziva’s reigning in Beitar was not really an act of revolt against Rome. Rabbi Akiva was completely justified in supporting this, and he never, chass v'shalom, entertained thoughts of rebellion.

    But we must understand: what was the Tzeror Hachaim’s question? If Rabbi Akiva held that Ben Koziva was Moshiach, what was wrong with supporting his military activities It seems that unlike the Rambam, the Tzeror Hachaim assumes that according to all opinions there will be miracles and heavenly revelations of some kind to prove Moshiach’s identity. Thus even Rabbi Akiva, who thought that Ben Koziva would eventually be revealed as Moshiach, had no right at that point in time to rely on this assumption in practice, to launch a revolt against Rome. The Tzeror Hachaim is thus forced to say that the reign of Ben Koziva was not a revolt.

  3. Don't we have proof from the words of the Gaonim to say that Rabbi Akiva's disciples died in Ben Koziva's revolt?

    The only "proof" they have come up with is a line from the Igeres Rav Sherira Gaon, which reads: "And Rabbi Akiva raised up many disciples, and there was a destruction ("shmada") on the disciples of Rabbi Akiva." Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz says in his commentary on the Talmud that this might be a reference to the war of Ben Koziva. However, the Doros Harishonim rules out this possibility due to the fact that Rav Sherira Gaon ends off with the words, "as it states in Yevamos." Thus it is clear that Rav Sherira Gaon merely meant to quote from Yevamos, where it is written that the cause of death was a plague of croup; his word "destruction" must be a reference to that plague.

    The Doros Harishonim also says that all of the 24,000 disciples learned under Rabbi Akiva before the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem. He proves this from Kesubos 63a, which relates that Rabbi Akiva came home to his wife with all the disciples and his father-in-law, Kalba Savua, annulled his vow and gave him half of his property. Since Kalba Savua died in the destruction of Jerusalem, this incident must have take place before the destruction. If so, it cannot be that these disciples were soldiers 50 or 60 years later in Ben Koziva's army.

  4. B"H

    Thanks for the interesting information. I will definitely look up the sources !

    I haven't looked into any historical background so far but I think that some historians are trying to say that when Rabbi Akiva saw Bar Kochva as Meshiach, why then should he try to help him with the revolt ? And according to such claims, Rabbi Akiva sent out his students to fight against the Romans.

  5. I have researched this subject and have written on it. The date of the death of Rebbe Akiva's students was about 85ce. He died at 120 years just after the destruction of the Bar Kochba revolt in 135, therefore he was born the year 15ce. He was forty when he started learning, and was away from his wife for 24 when he had his 24000 students. Perhasp he was with his wife for 3 years in the beginning. Therefore he was about 70 when they died in the year 85ce. Chazal tell us that at some time later he had 5 students including Rashbi and Rebbe Meir, but this was much later, about the time he supported Bar Kochba. It is clear, that the 24000 students had nothing to do with the B"K revolt.